Labette County USD 506 has learned it will receive $501,956 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development to provide interactive video conferencing equipment to allow access to students in rural Kansas.

The Rural Development announcement joined a larger USDA announcement that the agency is investing $72 million in 40 states through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program. These investments will benefit more than 12 million rural residents.

The money will help provide interactive video conferencing equipment in the district. The equipment enables the distribution of high-quality instruction.

USD 506 Superintendent John Wyrick said the district started the application process for the grant in November 2019, pre-pandemic, pre-crisis.

“So this was not a result of COVID-19,” Wyrick said. “For us, we saw a need for our families before COVID-19 was even in our vocabulary.”

“It’s pretty wild how this has worked out,” Labette County USD 506 technology director Jake Knaup said. “It’s something that we were working on beforehand and remote learning and distance learning. … It’s shifted from being something that’s an option to now a necessity. It really worked out so well.

“Technology has become an essential part of education and learning. Especially now there is more focus on distance learning and remote learning. We’re in a very rural position where sometimes it is difficult to get our students or staff in contact with different groups, so that’s where having this equipment really comes into play, to allow them to make those connections they need to make in order to enhance their education,” Knaup said.

The technology the grant will provide involves a variety of equipment, including teacher laptops for remote sessions, smartboards so they can have remote guest speakers on displays and remote conferencing systems.

Technology is not cheap, Wyrick said, noting to replace aging teacher laptops in all six schools alone is estimated to cost more than $300,000.

One reason laptops are required is because teachers are doing so much on their devices, requiring flexibility and mobility.

“A teacher can have a remote session open, a video conferencing session with multiple kids, while running smartboard software, while playing a video on YouTube, while having a Word document up, and there is just a lot they are having to juggle,” Knaup said. “There is a lot that is required and we have to have it to allow them to do what they need to do.”

USD 506 has lagged behind many districts in technology and connectivity in past years. Recently, Wave Wireless received  a grant to bring fiberoptics to the rural areas of Labette County, allowing residents access to high speed internet. Now, Wyrick said, with connectivity in place, it is up to the district to ensure students and staff have the equipment to allow learning anytime, anywhere. This is the first year the district is finally able to provide a 1-to-1 environment for students, meaning one device for every one student, which could become a necessity should schools be required to revert to remote learning in part or in whole.

“We would be negligent (to) our kids and their families if we did not have a 1-on-1 environment considering the state and the crisis… because with this pandemic you don’t know,” Wyrick said.

Considerations for such technology took a long view. USD 506 is rural and the district covers 500 square miles with grade schools positioned across the county. This led Knaup, Wyrick and others to figure out how to be more efficient with professional development when teachers in the same grades are miles apart. They questioned how they could allow staff the opportunity to communicate and collaborate daily and take all the miles out of the equation.

Issues considered were how they could share teachers from building to building, provide instruction from one school, offsite or across the district and how to allow students more opportunities to take classes they might otherwise not be able to take.

Technology was the answer.

Besides in-district benefits, Wyrick said the technology also will allow the district to work with Community Health Centers of Southeast Kansas (CHC-SEK).

Wyrick said he spoke with the executive director of CHC-SEK about providing health services to students in 506. The opportunity came when they were able to write telemedicine provisions into the grant, as technology would allow them to communicate with CHC-SEK, even if there is no nurse or doctor onsite, allowing them to see to the social/emotional needs of students.

“Health is academic,” Wyrick said. “If students are not healthy or feeling good, their chances of learning are decreased.”

The technology will also provide another opportunity for students, allowing them to work with Labette Community College in providing online classes, specifically nursing classes. Wyrick said the potential for a second USDA grant could help expand those learning opportunities by providing more equipment and technology to create a health sciences lab similar to that at the college.

Wyrick said staff was just notified Friday morning of the district being awarded the grant. Knaup said there could be a slight delay in the receipt of the technology, but they do not anticipate it taking too long. The excitement in the meantime is growing.

“Distance learning provides more educational resources to difficult-to-reach populations,” USDA State Director in Kansas Lynne Hinrichsen said Thursday.

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